Arriving at the Farm
When I first arrive at Walden Farms in North Sichuan in the beginning of September, my initial impression was that everything is of very high quality and the farm was operating on a much larger scale than I expected. I have used Workaway.info before to volunteer at farms before on smaller family run farms in Thailand and Malaysia. On Walden Farms Sichuan, there are more than 100 workers, many of them part of the family, and large scale construction going on in multiple areas of the mountain that span 4 zones. There is even a American Football field in construction - can you believe that? I guess it is too be expected of China. Everything here has to be grand in design from the consumer apps to the skyscrapers in Shenzhen and Shanghai, and now even farms in rural Sichuan, China. This is just another part of my Chinese re-education.
Remote Working and Internet
Before I arrived, I arranged with the farm host, Zhao Lin, that I would volunteer for the Workaway recommended 20 hours per week. I would spend the rest of the time to work on my online business developing apps and software systems for my clients. Even on a rural farm in China, I was still responsible to deliver the work I promise my clients overseas. The internet has enabled creators and knowledge workers to work from anywhere in the world as long as there is stable internet.
Although, China has been a real pain due to the Great Fire Wall making most foreign sites a great deal slower. For digital nomads and remote workers, Sichuan or China as a whole will take some getting accommodated to. China has not really caught on as a remote working paradise like Bali or Prague, although there is potential.
For writers and content creators, it should be relativity fine even with Chinese internet. Software development and web development is a bit tricky since many highly used services like Google and Facebook APIs are blocked within the country or heavily slowed due to intense filtering. Web designers who need to download or upload large files will find the Chinese internet frustrating as well.
Figuring Out How to Contribute
My initial thought was that I would help with some software system or IT related work, since was where my skills would be useful. During the first few days, I honestly just walked around, ate a bunch of the healthy farm food, and drank the delicious green tea in the family kitchen. After chatting with the other volunteers and family members, I found out most of the work involves designing and architecture of new buildings, carpentry and construction, and video filming work to would be used to promote. There is also gardening and physical farm work which I sometimes join for the learning experience and relaxation. I still needed to find something that I can really contribute towards and where my knowledge would be useful.
Eventually, I did find out that a website was already made by an previous volunteer for Walden Farm. This exact website you are reading from right now.
I looked more into it and realized that the website was built on a content management platform called SquareSpace. SquareSpace enables the creator to make websites without any code by using a drag and drop interface and templates.
This realization was initially disappointing and hardly exciting for a seasoned web engineer such as myself who thrives on difficult engineering problems and coding up solutions.
Then I realized that what the website needed was not more code or features. What it needed was relevant content and some targeted online marketing. This made SquareSpace a great platform because the work required will not be about building the website out more, but gaining more traffic for the website via content and analytics. For awhile now, I have been telling myself to get better at writing and to learn some basic marketing skills. Here was the perfect avenue for my learning experiments in marketing.
Getting to Work
I was familiar with the concepts of content marketing and SEO from working as a web developer partnering closely with online marketers and agencies in California, Malaysia, and Singapore. But actually doing and knowing are not the same, right? This was my chance to put some of that latent knowledge into actual practice. So, I spent the first couple of weeks optimizing for meta tags, meta titles, alt tags, and other technicalities as I was most comfortable with these concepts from being a web frontend engineer.
Then, I read some great articles on Search Engine Optimization and started on some keyword research for terms like "Sichuan farm retreat" or "Sichuan fruits and vegetables". One of the main issues with the website was that many of the page titles and content was not specific enough for the location and the services we provide. So optimizing for long tail keywords was the primary goal.
The next step was optimizing the existing content with a new targeted approach to keywords that would attract the right kind of people to the farm. A couple of the other volunteers were able to help with getting the farm website listed on a "places of interest" aggregation site that was popular for Chengdu Expats. This helped with search engine rankings and referral traffic. Another optimization was creating a network of internal and external links so that search engines will have many paths to crawl and understand the structure of the site more clearly.
Writing Relevant Content
Eventually, we come to the point where I knew that to further increase traffic, I would need to create new content. It would have to be interesting or informative content that attracts the right kind of people to us. This was the most dreadful task for me.
I have no problems writing algorithms to predict earthquakes in Mexico for my clients, but writing about casual topics or about myself always makes me cringe. It is hard to imagine why anyone would want to read my writings, as I find it so bland and pointless myself. But work needs to be done, and you just need to roll up your sleeves and get on with it. It is all about just doing this work and putting in those first 1000 hours.
There was huge amount of photos taken of the houses for rental. I began with putting up pages for the Swimming Pool Villa and Stephane Forest House for public rental. These pages were practical, straight to the point, and did not require a too much creativity on my part as I just needed to gather enough facts to write the page. It is also very important for SEO copy writers to write for both machines(search engines crawlers) and be relevant for humans readers. I wrote about fruits and vegetables in Sichuan province and added some of the research left by previous volunteers about Birds in Sichuan and around the farm. It was very interesting stuff and I foresee huge opportunity for Walden Farms to be used as a platform for ecological research.
Kika who is a architect and designer full-timer, but she also does offline marketing, business plans, and organization management, gave me a bunch of materials to analyze and take inspiration from. Soon, there was too many ideas to create content on and it started become easier. I also got the basics from reading this book which I highly recommend: Everybody Writes by Ann Handley.
Results of the Experiment and Metrics
We managed to break all previous monthly traffic peaks and had the best month yet from all our efforts. For unique visits, we are up more than 80% and for page views, we are up over 110% in September 2018. To be fair, we did come from a pretty low point so getting a increase in traffic was relatively simple. If we continue to gain 80% unique visitors month on month compounded, in 5 months we should have more than 5600 unique monthly visitors on this site. Our goal is to have at least 5000 to 10,000 unique visitors per month for this niche.
I would love to continue the effort, but my time is almost up and I need to move on with my other commitments. This is also the reason that I write this detailed post so that if there is any web and marketing enthusiast who want to continue the online marketing efforts for a wonderful social enterprise, do not hesitate to join us here at the farm.
We are looking for social media gurus, content writers, journalist, and SEO specialists. We want more people to know about the great ecological work here. We also want the farm to start making enough cashflow if the ultimate sustainability vision has any chance of being reached. This is why we want to promote and optimized the website. If you believe this is useful and the vision is worth it, join us as a volunteer. Or check out some volunteer experiences first.
Walden Farm as a Platform for Researchers and Creatives
We even had multiple discussions on building out a co-working space either underground or in the water tower here. It is a pretty far out idea for now, but what do you guys think? Would a accommodation and co-working package work in a place like this? The air quality, scenery, and food is so fresh here which would benefit anyone software developer, designer, or entrepreneurs who needs to get out of the city for a week or two to find inspiration. I imagine the internet needs to be very fast and consistent, and perhaps more activities to mix things up. I believe the accommodations, working space, and community are already in place for this to be possible right now. Feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org if this idea sounds interesting for you.
Walden Farm is a truly great place to be. It is true what is said on the Workaway volunteer page. You are free to do what you want here. You can explore your passions, get your hands dirty and work as a farmer, or run a learning experiment like I did. There was a biologist student some time ago who came here and studied birds for a month. It is up to you how you make your time here, nobody will tell you what to do. You can use it as a platform for exploring something that interests you. Just don't forget to share with others what you have learned.